by William Trollinger
Last Sunday, I was at the William McKinley Memorial Museum in Niles, Ohio – McKinley’s birthplace – to speak on “Statues, Flags, and the Ongoing Battle Over the Civil War.” Given McKinley’s role as a Union soldier, it seemed quite the appropriate venue, even if it felt a bit unusual to be giving this talk while flanked by the busts of twelve or so wealthy industrialists (who paid for the privilege of being thusly commemorated in the McKinley Museum, and who even wrote their own citations).
I began by briefly mentioning the use of the Confederate flag by contemporary white supremacists. Then it was on to the Civil War. I started my discussion of the war by noting that – despite what many of us were taught – it really is indisputable that slavery was its primary cause. Along the way, I showed slides of South Carolina’s South Carolina’s and Mississippi’s secession resolutions. Within moments of beginning my talk, a white man sitting near the front interrupted my talk by loudly exclaiming that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and he also accused me of manipulating the secession resolutions by way of use of ellipses to serve my argument. I assured the audience that nothing I left out of the statements changed their central arguments about the necessity of secession on behalf of protecting slavery and told him that he should read the statements for himself (and add Georgia’s interminable secession resolution for good measure). I then went on to Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens’ infamous March, 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which Stephens asserted that
African slavery was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution . . . The Constitution rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
I was again interrupted by the same (and increasingly angry) man, who announced that Abraham Lincoln said exactly the same thing, and that in fact Lincoln was as passionately proslavery as Stephens. In the politest tone I could muster, I said that was ridiculous.
While there were no more outbursts, he remained upset throughout the entirety of my presentation (arms crossed and shaking his head), and he marched out early in the question-and-answer period.
The ongoing battle over the Civil War, indeed. It is 2019, and yet many white Americans remain determined to hold on to the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery, but, instead, was an avoidable and unfortunate conflict of (white) brother vs. (white) brother. And this determination to see the past in this fashion seems rooted in a very deep desire not to see that racism and racial oppression is a central feature of American history.
But my agitated interlocutor in Niles was very much in the minority. In fact, I have to say that it was a quite receptive audience (which may indeed have contributed to the his departure). And Niles is not an anomaly. The vast majority of folks I have encountered in giving Ohio Humanities presentations on Confederate monuments (and on the Ku Klux Klan) are people who want (as one person in Niles said) to know the “real” American history, warts and all. Of course I know these are self-selected audiences. But in this time of ascendant white supremacy and grotesque racism emanating from the White House, I am grateful for this measure of encouragement.